This road I travel. #3

This Road 2Many of the changes I have encountered in my life occurred years ago, when I began to step out of the cocoon of my early church upbringing.  This one, though, is relatively new.

The availability of information has changed everything.

It was gradual, at first.  Radio.  Television.  “Live”entertainment and news reporting put people in the moment. It was censored and edited in the beginning, but over the past couple of decades, it has become increasingly unfilteredwith unlimited availability.

The internet has given a voice to anybody and everybody.  24 hours a day.  An expert is anyone with a keyboard. Somebody’s opinion is just a click away.  Somebody’s perspective is always waiting for you to read it, listen to it, or watch it.

The same medium that can show you how to fix a compressor on a refrigerator or properly hang a kitchen cabinet, can also provide you with instant filth or the non-stop rants of atheists bent on making a mockery of people of faith.

In the 1970’s, about the only place my faith was ever challenged intellectually was at San Diego State University… by my philosophy professors and the campus radicals who stood up in the quad to heckle the open-air street preachers who were proclaiming the message of “turn or burn” every day to the uninterested crowds.

Nowadays, there are hundreds (probably thousands) of websites dedicated to debunking orthodox, biblical faith at our fingertips.  Granted, I probably do more searching of theology, philosophy and social issues than the average joebut if I am constantly encountering things that challenge my beliefs and cause me to dig really deep to come up with intelligent responses, I can only image there are others with the same struggles.

And many of them are part of a younger generation that seems to be rejecting the life and message of the church in such alarming numbers.

Anybody can post anything on Facebook with authority.  It’s the pulpit for the masses.  No training required.  No education required.  No consequences for plagiarism, bias, or citing sources that haven’t been properly researched.   Facebook “preachers” pontificate their version of the truth (on unlimited subjects) to listening ears with absolute conviction and authoritative certainty.

And people believe it.  And there’s no stopping it.

Watchdog bloggers are everywhere exposing the sins of churches and church leaders.  All of our dirty laundry (toxic leadership, sexual abuse of members, financial mismanagement, manipulative deception, the wack-job fringe, in-fighting, theological wars, crazy authoritarian church discipline, lack of love, harsh judgementneed I go on?) is hanging on the close line for everybody to see.   Things that only the “insiders” knew about are now part of the everyday internet landscape.

I love the accountability.  I hate the exposure.

Forty years ago, the majority of theological minds who were writing books and being published in mainstream religious circles were coming from the conservative, evangelical community.  This has blown up in recent years.  Progressive and liberal voices in the church are being heard loud and clear and they are full of well-articulated theological positions and arguments I NEVER heard when I was younger, even though they were out there.

They just didn’t have the medium.

They do now.

It’s a brave, new world.  Being a follower of Christ in the United States is no longer a privileged position.  What I believe no longer goes unchallenged.  I don’t start from the pole position anymore.

And I’m ok with that.

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Preaching

preachingi’ve read a bunch of books on preaching.   i’ve watched videos of well-known preachers.  i’ve listened to audios of hundreds.  when i was younger, i even subscribed to a couple of preacher’s cassette (remember those?) lending libraries.

i used to attend conferences that were headlined by influential preachers…and sat through hours of presentations.  i even took notes.

i’ve had undergraduate and graduate level courses on expository preaching and homiletics.  my master’s degree is in preaching and church growth…not youth ministry or advanced funology.

i’ve studied the history of preaching…and preaching theory.   i’ve studied preaching models.  i understand how to exegete a text and do word studies in greek and hebrew.  i’ve studied about argument and persuasion and presentation and application.  i know the different components of a sermon

i’ve watched tapes of myself preaching (yuck).  i’ve heard recordings of my preaching.  i’ve had my preaching evaluated by people i respect and received the unsolicited critique of those i probably wouldn’t seek out.  in just the last 14 years, i bet i’ve written and preached over 600 sermons.  some would say it’s the most important thing i do…the most important thing anybody could ever do.

i grew up in a church where the preacher was incredibly smart and liked to show it off in his preaching.  he used huge words and referred to “the greek” constantly, told historical illustrations in lengthy detail and had a passionate quiver in his voice at the end of every sermon as he beckoned people to come to the front of our church building to accept jesus as their personal savior or to repent of their sins or to join our church.

and the same 80-100 people had that experience every sunday.

i didn’t know what i wanted to do with my life as a kid, but i was quite sure preaching was not it.

ahh…the shouts of cosmic irony are deafening.

there is no doubt i am a reluctant preacher.  i am constantly humbled by the sobriety and importance of proclaiming the good news of the kingdom.  i am often the one “most overwhelmed” by the message i preach…not because it was so good, but because it was so true.

i know my oratorical skills are pretty pedestrian.  some of that is because i was probably goofing around in line when the spiritual gifts were being given out.  but some of that is by design, too.   years ago, i made the decision i would prepare every sermon for the mind and attention span of a ninth-grade boy.  talk about “broad-casting”!

but the good news isn’t so good, if you can’t understand it.

it is an honor to proclaim the truth of jesus each week to my church family.  i’m grateful you don’t expect perfection.  i’m humbled that you listen and respond.  i am constantly encouraged that you are willing to let me express my doubts and wrestle publicly with those areas of scripture for which i don’t have a perfect answer.   i love it that you understand i am on the same journey as you.

it is comforting to know that you do not see me as the “holy man” or the “answer man” or the guy on the pedestal.   thanks.

for the record, if i were to evaluate my own sermons and rank them in order of most important…yesterday’s would definitely be in the top two or three of my whole life.  no kidding.  so if you missed it, you can check it out on the NP website later in the week…or better yet, how about lunch and i can preach it to you personally?

or not.

Marriage Tuesday

in a lot of ways, marriage is defined by decision-making.

to be more precise, your married life together will be a never-ending avalanche of decisions that you and your partner will have to make…together.  (and since i see marriage as a co-equal partnership and not the traditional hierarchical model, that means the “big” decisions don’t just fall to daddy!) 

in marriage, you will make all sorts of decisions:  to have kids or not…when to have them…cars to buy…jobs to take… houses to purchase… financial investments…insurance…friends to invest in…career paths…continued education… church involvement…and countless subplots that all demand decisions.

and it never ends.

so after nearly four decades of wedded bliss, here is the most important piece of advice i can give you…not just about decision-making…but about the whole direction of your lives together:

don’t try to ever try to make life-family-financial-spiritual decisions of any kind or of any magnitude without being in agreement on where everything is headed.

in other words, don’t ever do the “what?”, without being in agreement on the “why?”.

nobody can  do this for you.  you cannot try to be what some other married couple is like.  you can learn from others or be inspired by others, but you have to arrive at your own “why’s”.  and if you’re married, there’s no time to lose.

personally, i think this is the one area of our life together that has created the most stability and contentment for me and wanda.  from the very beginning of our relationship, we reached agreement on the things that were the most important in our lives.  

we agreed that if we honestly and practically placed the kingdom of god and our service to people for their good and the honor of god first, then that decision could frame and define every other important decision we would make in our lives…

  • where we would live…
  • what kinds of jobs we would take…
  • how we would raise our kids…
  • the kinds of friendships we would invest in…
  • the kinds of houses and cars and stuff we would buy…
  • how much money we would give away…
  • the things we could and would say “yes” to…
  • the things and people and places and opportunities we would say “no” to…
  • how we’ve defined fun and contentment…
  • what we’ve learned to be satisfied with…

people seem pretty amazed to find out that we don’t fight.  ever.  i’m not.  we agree on where we’re headed and what we are to be doing with our lives along the way.

we are both opinionated.  we definitely disagree on things.  but when it comes it comes to purpose, we ironed that out years ago.

and it’s never too late for you to start ironing…

Marriage Tuesday

having been together for over forty years,  wanda and i have been through a lot.   we’ve had our share of disappointments and situations where sadness and sorrow have been front and center.

we are no different than most people.   in fact,  after having walked through pain and tragedy with so many people over my life,  i think our lives have been easier than most.   but struggle is always present and grief is always just around the corner.

like i said…we’re just like everybody else.

what happens to your marriage when tough times come knocking?   what’s your relationship like when one of you is traveling through the dark night of the soul?   what about when both of you are there?

one of the toughest things we have to do in the shared journey of marriage is to sit across from our spouse and watch them cry.   to drink in their sadness and watch the expression of sorrow in their eyes is something that can take our breath away…and leave us feeling helpless.

that’s why building a lifetime of conversation is so important.   hear me out…

some of the best counsel  we ever give is to say nothing.   i’ve watched as people botch the grieving process by trying to talk…by telling people answers…by acting as if they know what the other person is going through…or playing dime-store psychologist.

instead of simply giving presence,  people feel the need to give advice…telling people what they should think and feel and believe during the time of loss or heartbreak…as if the goal is to make people feel better as quickly as possible.

although there are many times when all wanda or i have needed from each other was silence and space,  there are other times when we have needed more.   a lot more.   that’s when we need true partnership.   that’s when we need the gift of spiritual oneness.

nobody can speak truth better to me than wanda.   nobody can say the difficult things to me better than she can.   there are no words i am more receptive to than hers.   in my darkness,  she is the best light with skin on that i have.   as am i for her.

that’s part of what being married is all about.   a big part.

the truth is,  our souls have gone through some dark nights recently.   and nobody knows about them but us.   this is not about getting sympathy,  but about encouraging you.

we have walked every step of the way with each other.   we talk.   we sympathize.   we get angry.   we challenge each other to take the high road.   we analyze.   we hypothesize.   we dare each other to believe the truth of god we have staked our lives on.

we make each other remember to see the bigger picture and to love as jesus would.

we let each other feel pain and refuse to cheapen the experience.   we listen as we express confusion or hurt or unrealistic expectations.   we laugh at each other and hold each other accountable to love at all cost.

we are not afraid to call each other out when we are wrong or off-base in our responses or unrealistic in our interpretations of what we are going through.   we are each other’s worst…and best…critic.   we refuse to let each other hide or sit in our melancholy unattended.

when others must sit in patient silence,  we need each other’s words.   along with love and understanding and consolation and quiet,  gracious attendance…we are the voices that are raised in defiance over the darkness we are stumbling through.

we are god’s mouthpieces in our union.

that’s what married people do.   that’s what we do.

is that what you do?

Marriage Tuesday

i’ve been doing marriage tuesdays  for over a year-and-a-half.   there is one topic that i find myself circling back to again and again.

talking.

there’s no question that i feel talking with each other is the oxygen that every marriage needs to survive.   it is the greatest gift wanda and i have ever given to each other.

most marriage counselors would agree that the greatest problems in marriages are the result of struggles in the following areas:

  • relationship with in-laws
  • sexual intimacy
  • money
  • children
  • career demands

some would add communication to the list,  but i see it as an entirely separate area that exerts it’s influence into every area of conflict.

there are some couples that have unbelievably difficult and demanding interference from their parents…moms or dads who still control either overtly or subversively…or both.

there are many,  many couples who struggle deeply trying to cultivate a healthy and mutually fulfilling sexual life together…and the tragedy is that most will suffer in silence,  rather than seek help or counsel.

still other relationships are suffocating under the weight of debt…some because of financial mismanagement…some because of the economic fallout.

for all the joy that children bring,  there is an equal amount of stress,  life-change,  worry,  grief,  and emotional upheaval that puts every marriage at risk.

finally,  for a lot of couples,  the demands of career goals…job requirements… out-of-control schedules…unrealistic occupational expectations…are sucking the life right out of their relationships.

here’s the deal.   the real tragedy is not that these kinds of difficulties have to be faced.   no.   the real tragedy is that couples don’t know how to have…or simply avoid having… meaningful,  heart-to-heart conversation about these things.

every couple has to deal with in-law issues…sex issues…money issues…kid issues…job and schedule issues.   it comes with life.   no couple is exempt.   we’ve all been there.   we’ll all be there again.

so unless you want to watch your marriage go down the toilet…or just grow into stagnant nothingness…learn to talk with each other.

quick.